Cuba’s Counterfeit Cigars: Know your Fakes

By Karim Arnous

HAVANA TIMES – Think of Cuba and a few things pop to mind. Fidel Castro, socialism, excellent rum and arguably the world’s best cigars. Cuba has always been very proud of its famous ‘Habano’ cigars.

The authentic and highly desirable smokes use Cuba grown tobacco and are rolled by hand on the island in a process that involves over 500 manual tasks. The tradition has been around since aboriginals known as the Cohibins began rolling tobacco as early as the late 15th century and has survived the economic turmoil of multiple revolutions.

Today, however, it is estimated that almost as many ‘fake’ cigars are sold in tourist scams than real ones. To make matters worse, they are often not marketed as fakes, but rather original cigars that a factory worker was ‘given as part of his salary’ or has managed to ‘smuggle out of work’. The large majority of people who first fall for this trap, me included, are under the impression that they are purchasing the real deal.

It takes a pretty well-trained eye to be able to identify some of the counterfeits as fakes without having the genuine article in hand to visually compare it to, so it is easier than it might sound to be fooled. Even the recently released Netflix documentary ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ featured a man selling boxes of Cigars that he had ‘stolen from the factory’.

The film makers knew no better and rather than be presented as a scam, the plot was shown to be a cheap way of picking up some proper cigars. Obviously, as it took the form of a documentary, I believed it. In fact, the scale and lure of this scam is now so comprehensive that I was actually offered some fakes by an official TOUR GUIDE at the end of a cigar factory tour.

The money is so lucrative that people are getting away with doing it right under the noses of official government entities. Annoyed at having been scammed, I spent the ensuing weeks investigating the matter. Learning the details and nuances of the system so that I can help others steer clear of the expensive hole I fell into.

Firstly, I must clarify that the cigars being sold are not actually fake cigars. Rather, they are fake ‘Cohibas’, ‘Montechristos’ or any other original Habano marque that they seek to replicate through false labelling and packaging. You see Habano Cigars are Cigars made from tobacco grown in a specific region of Cuba. Think Champagne – there are many sparkling wines, but only those made with grapes grown in the specific region of France can constitute Champagne.

The so-called-fake cigars are made with Cuban tobacco and, although not universally, are rolled by hand just like their expensive counterparts. Saying this, the process of rolling and production is nowhere near as pedantically monitored and controlled by the Cuban government. While this does mean that with some good haggling you can pick up a box of counterfeit Cohibas off the street for around $60 as opposed to the in-store, original price of over $350, it also means that you are taking a risk every time you light one up.

As a local cigar expert explained, the unregulated process occasionally allows for poor quality or even dangerous tobacco to end up in the cigars. So here are a few things to understand that will help you avoid being scammed. After all, with US tourists now being able to take up to 100 cigars back home from a visit as opposed to the previous limit of 50, it’s worth knowing your facts to ensure that there is little chance you’ll walk away with low quality, possibly even machine manufactured cigars.

To start, a basic understanding of the Cuban economy will significantly decrease your chances of getting scammed. It is a fact that the price of ALL Habano Cigars is set by the government. If you’re offered a box of Cohibas for $150 less than market price, they are almost certainly not originals.

Secondly, knowing what the average factory worker makes invalidates the very common ‘I am given these boxes as part of my salary’ story. I spoke with a man who works at the ‘Rey del Mundo’ factory, and he told me that his monthly salary is around 320 Cuban Pesos. This translates roughly to around US $13, so it makes absolutely no sense for him to be gifted $700 worth of product in the form of two boxes of luxury cigars every month. It just doesn’t happen. A general rule is that if you are buying them off of the street or out of someone’s front room; they are fake.

Still, if you are still not sure of the validity, there are many ways to tell from the actual Cigars. The box should help. The real deal will have a three-letter code printed on it like ‘TES’, denominating its factory of production as well as the date in the form of another three-letter abbreviation of the month and the final two digits of the year. The label that seals the box also contains a hologram – something that the counterfeiters simply cannot reproduce. If you are still curious you can inspect the actual cigars.

Arguably the biggest clue is in the label. Real Cigars will have beautiful and often intricate labels. Cohiba have even upped the detail on their labels as of late to help differentiate from the fakes. You’ll notice that the real cigars have a small head within the bigger gold head on the label, as well as ‘Cohiba’ written over and over again in gold bands at the top and bottom of the label. Even without such details, fakes should be easy to identify. If the label is faded or not perfectly clear in all places, chances are they are not real.

Finally, if you are still questioning the legitimacy of the product in hand, the actual cigars should be your final clue. All the tobacco should be rolled in the same direction, and the cigar should feel very dense when you press on it. The fakes I bought are easily squished. If you run your fingers around the cigar, gently applying pressure to all areas, you should find no sections that feel uneven or hollow – like a smooth road. My counterfeit cigars feel more like a teenager’s face than anything else. And I can vouch for this, as I am in fact a teenager.

A proper Cuban cigar is something that can and should be enjoyed to the last puff. They are the final result of a long and painstaking process that involves countless hours of labor. It is an industry that Cuba is rightfully very proud of, so do yourself a favor and buy some proper Habanos. It’s an authentic Cuban experience that should not be overlooked if you’ve already made the effort to come out here.



26 thoughts on “Cuba’s Counterfeit Cigars: Know your Fakes

  • Good article with great advice and a wonderful recap of the history of Cuban cigars. A clear, unbiased view of the socio-economic circumstances that would lead a person to counterfeit such an item. Disappointing to hear about what happened on the cigar factory tour, however.

    What a funny surprize at the end! The depth and tenor of this piece would never have indicated to me that it is a teenager writing. Impressive.

    If you are still unsure about authenticity, I recommend buying from the duty free stores in the airports on your way out of Cuba, as I do.

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  • Street prices of Cuban cigars are MUCH lower than what Karim has quoted. For the tourist who is simply buying a souvenir cigar, smoking the “fakes” is probably the better choice. The novice wouldn’t taste the difference. In other words, street cigars are generally not that bad when compared to the originals. Counterfeiters have mastered their craft. There are cigars sold on the street that would fool all but the most discerning cigar aficionado. Finally, as one such aficionado with more than 30 years of smoking all of the very best cigars from around the world, it should be corrected that Cuban cigars are AMONG the best in the world. Dominican, Nicaraguan and even Mexican brands have become real competitors to the Cuban brands. This should come as no surprise. Nicaraguan brands use Cuban fillers and Cuban brands use Dominican wrappers, etc. All growers have used tobacco seeds from other countries. Cuban cigar rollers work in cigar factories all over the world. Nonetheless, my personal favorite, the Cuban “Esplendido” is a consistent winner.

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    • If you’re buying street cigars in the knoweledge that they are not real then I am sure you can get them for lower than I quoted. You would not be swayed by the lies they tend to feed the more naive tourists. However, I for one actually paid a lot more than 60$ for the street cigars I bought – as did the friends who were with me at the time. I completely agree that their value is much less, but we cannot deny the price they are being sold at to tourists who know no better. It is that false advertising that makes it a scam. As for Cigars from elsewhere in South America, I take your word for it. I am far from an experienced cigar connoisseur.

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    • Interested to understand how you know the Nicaraguan brands use Cuban fillers and Cuban brands use Dominican wrappers… I’ve not seen any proof of importation or exportation of either to the other’s countries. Have you?

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      • Officials at the Partagas cigar factory in Havana readily admit to the importation. After hurricanes and droughts, many Cuban tobacco plants are destroyed. Makes sense right? Although seeds are warehoused and seedlings protected in greenhouses, these efforts are not enough on their own. Tobacco growers in Vinales claim it’s the Cuban soil and the Cuban climate that makes the difference. The point is that Cuban cigars have earned their renown largely based on excellent marketing. Simply Google “Top ten cigars in the world”. Only two Cuban cigars make the list.

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      • Some use Cuban seeds to grow tobacco in Nicaragua, Honduras, etc. I believe the seed originated in Cuba and was smuggled out after the revolution. Are they still smuggling seed from Cuba? Don’t know. But cigar flavor comes primarily from soil and climate. So, in my opinion, “Cuban seed” is mostly a marketing gimmick. Sadly, quality control in Cuba has diminished over the years, bad weather has negatively impacted recent crops, and global demand has resulted in decreased aging. Cubans often need a year or more of humidor time to age. Many Cuban producers have failed to rotate crops, which has degregated soil quality. Premium non-Cubans – My Father, Padron, La Flor Dominicana, etc – have incredible quality control, which has resulted in labels surpassing Cuban quality. I believe a big part of the American appetite is the Cuban mystique.

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  • “Fake cigars” is yet another of those ambiguous terms or concepts that most think they understand initially but after more experience eventually realize is far more complex and misunderstood. The term is certainly not black and white as too many believe. Is a cigar rolled at home by a Cohiba factory worker from filler and wrapper from the factory a “fake” or just an unlabeled Cohiba. Too many variations on that theme. The spectrum runs from inferior product with counterfeit labels in counterfeit boxes to identical quality famous names at very good prices.

    There are counterfeit cigars sold in official stores. The store workers simply pocket the payment and replace the cigars with those purchased elsewhere at much lower prices.

    Most, but not all buyers, have no clue what they are paying for thus providing a lucrative market for Cubans working outside the system.

    I had a significant long term relationship with a Cubana who was a tobacco dealer. She did not sell individual boxes to tourists in the street but had a good international clientele who continually returned to Cuba to buy volume at good prices. She could provide quality brand name cigars but without bands or labels, bands, cigar boxes, certificates of authenticity, even official store cash register receipts, or any combination the buyer wanted.

    So there are “fake cigars” that a true aficionado could not differentiate, some that are just good, and some that are not. But for someone who is insistent on having the real deal, there are only two guaranteed ways:
    1) accept a cigar from one of the factory rollers through the open factory window. This is not as unusual as it sounds. It just takes a bit of conversation through the window until they offer. Of course, you can never ask.
    2) buy peso cigars at the local tienda. They are 1 CUP (equivalent 4 cents) each or 25 CUP, (equivalent 1 CUC or $1-) for a bundle of 25. No one counterfeits those because of the price. This is what Cubans smoke. Really not bad cigars for the price. If you are not a regular cigar smoker and just want a “authentic Cuban cigar”, they are the smoke for you.

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    • With regards to your option #2: YUK!!!! Those are the harshest, most horribly made, inconsistent smokes you can imagine. It is true that they are the cigars that only the poorest Cubans smoke. There is no comparison of these cigars, easily purchased from corner bodegas to the cigars, real or fake, that Cuba produces for export.

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      • Moses: I can certainly understand your personal opinion that the peso or 4 cent cigars are not good. Your opinion is no doubt shared by those like you who state their favorite is a Cohiba Esplendido, a cigar that costs 500 times as much.

        My comment related to those who are not regular cigar smokers and just want a “authentic Cuban cigar”. I can freely give away peso cigars in the US to people who swear “there is just nothing like a great authentic Cuban cigar” as they know little difference.

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        • Understood. I have no problem getting off my “high horse” to imagine how someone who simply wants to enjoy smoking a Cuban cigar could appreciate the lesser smokes.

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  • Very simplified description of cigar market. First of all what is the real cigar and what is the fake?! Somehow this attributes are so strong that you think one is great the other is total shit. It is not that way believe me. I once baught very original box in shop and majority of cigars were rolled so tight you could not smoke them. So there are many levels of quality of cuban cigars and many ways of getting it in Cuba. personaly I have long time friend in Pinar del Rio who supply me with perfect cigars without label. Few years he even hired a guy to roll especially form me from the first class tobacco. And honestly for this cigars I don’t give a shit which brand they are. Secondly in Havana you can get cigars on few levels too. You can get no-label ones also some very good quality. You can really get shit fake ones with or without labels. When I say fake I mean they are of very poor quality. And there are some nice tests you can see right form the start that cigars are of the poor quality. 1. They have to be of the same softness through all the length. If they are too tight you can not smoke them. 2. There should be no visible veins. The cigar should be perfectly smooth. 3. As leaves should be in one piece and not grounded like in cigarette, when you try to roll the top in the fingers nothing should drop out. 4. The color of cigar should be equal in all parts. There are some very very good cigars which can not be part of the original box just because of the color. 5. Very important when you blow in air in the top and hold cigar with your hand you should feel it spread easily and smoothly.
    There are cigars from the factory which does not pass quality control and they are really given to the workers. Problem with them they re usualy very tightly rolled and can not be smoked so you should be very careful with them.
    To conclude I don’t buy cigars in shops cause they are crazy over priced. For a tourist who is in Habana first and last time it is really a tricky game, but when you know something about the matter you can get high quality for reasonable price. So “fake” and “real” have many, many sorts inbetween!

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  • And I forgot one veeery important test – good quality cigar have white ashes not black not grey but purely WHITE!!!!

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  • I am from province outside of Havana and have family that have worked at the Tabacaria for three generations. When your monthly salary is 25 dollars you can be dame sure that some perfectly authentic Habanos exit on a continual basis. The packaging may or may not accompany as it is much harder to come by. Now in Havana in the tourist areas scams abound.
    But not all are fakes you just need to be in the right location and have the right connections. Also speaking the language especially slang helps tremendously.

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  • Funny thing: Many of the best rollers left for Tampa many years ago. Today, Tampa makes some very nice cigars. Not the best Cuban grown tabacco but decent…Here the crazy thing…speed boats, ofter called cigarette boats, come into Cuban late at night, with….yes, American cigars from Tampa(and possible other places) labeled at Cohibas, Montechristos etc. And how do i know this bizarre factoid? A pal used to be in the Cuban navy (running US made ships) and intercepted quite a few.
    Gotta love dem Kubans!

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    • I had no idea about this. That is very interesting and unexpected. You’d think it would be the other way around. I’ve heard that quite a lot of the drugs being sold here are also run in from America as oppose to the South American countries where they originate.

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  • Ho Ho ! I am having many times single cigars from casa del habanos which are worse than fake . ..smoking like old canoe or plugged with stick inside ! And I am paying 8 or 10 cuc each ! So many cheatings are there .

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  • Wow. The only thing more mired in inaccuracies and hearsay than this article, is the commenters 😉

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  • Cigars? is it Quality you want or Quantity? As a smoker you should be able to distinguish from a quality cigar to a rather inferior imitation although some of these fake cigar brands have improved so be careful when you next purchase Cigars to take home and if you wish to ensure that you have the real thing then only buy from a government bonded store! Quality cost’s big bucks!

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  • Good article. I have picked up “factory door” boxes of cigars in the past for a friend who swore they were great. Price 40CUC. However he was not an aficionado! The boxes and the labels were both pretty much authentic looking and labels well printed. Subsequently I bought for an aficionado who labelled them fake. So the next time I bought him two boxes of Monte Cristos from the cigar store at the Hotel Libre. The first box he pointed out the labels were gold instead of yellow and the 2nd box contained mouldy cigars – so where is safe???!!

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  • Cool stuff. Heading down to Cayo Coco next week. Hope to find some cheap “high quality” Cigars…
    Last time i got some in Veradero. Well some cigars at least. But hea.. they were really great and i enjoyed each and every one.

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  • I didn’t read all the comments but I am impressed that this comes from a teenager. Well written. I live is south Florida and lately been getting a lot of “Cohiba” cigars from friends who have been traveling to Cuba. Some of them are not bad but the biggest problem I have noticed is that they are poorly rolled. Very inconsistent. Sometimes impossible to smoke. They make great gifts for people who don’t know a good cigar from a fake but don’t try to pass one off as the real thing to anybody who knows a good cigar

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  • Does anybody know what factorie that i should buy my boxes of cigars from? i plan to buy 6 boxes and do you know if ther is a discount for buying more than 1 box?

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  • Where in Cuba are you headed ?

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  • On the beach, lifeguards would sell you cigars and you can get a box of Cohiba for as low as 35 CUC which is around 40 USD. We went there with kids this summer and I must say they aren’t pushy to sell you things. For a good deal you should probably ask around yourself.

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  • For fake Cohibas sold in Cuba, where do the counterfeiters get the labels? I suspect they would have to import the labels, because I doubt the high tech printers necessary to print the packaging could be found in Cuba.

    Reply

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